An Italian island oozing with history
Rome: “Did you know that Mount Etna is a woman? We know this because she’s been known to be peaceful one minute, but within five minutes can explode.”
And with these reductive words, our tour guide gives life to Sicily’s grand old lady, who at 500,000 years of age and with more than 200 eruptions to her name has not only earned herself a reputation, but a place on the Unesco World Heritage list.
Those who know me know that I’ve been known to rumble and get hot under the collar at regular intervals, so I’m actually able to relate to the picture our guide has painted of this 1,190-square-kilometre ‘woman’. As we make our way up the mountain in our van, I notice the change in the environment, from the jet-black volcanic soil that supports much of the agriculture here, to the patches of bright flora nestled within it and the small village communities that house Sicilians who “are absolutely not afraid of Mumma Etna” despite the fact that she has been known to spew stones the size of fists, and last roared into action in August.
Etna sits closest to the city of Catania, and on a clear day can be seen from more than half of Sicily. I’ve never walked on an active volcano before and at the advice of friends of mine who have been here before, I’m well equipped with a feather-down jacket, warm trousers and good walking shoes. As we reach the cable car that is to take us three quarters of the way to the highest accessible peak (2,900 metres), it’s on with the warm gear. Despite the freshness in the air my hands grow clammy as we approach the station – I’m not good with confined spaces or bumpy, almost vertical rides, but I’m happy to report, I do manage to enjoy it by the halfway mark – the views over the mountain and greater valley below are incredible enough to allay the fear. A ride in a vehicle similar to a sizable snowmobile is the final leg in our journey to the top. It’s bumpy and visibility is low, with colour-tipped poles on either side of the path – the driver’s only guides through this steep, gravelly terrain.
Walking around a volcanic crater three kilometres above sea level in temperatures as low as 5°C is quite the experience, and as the mist crosses our path and the icy breeze whips our faces, the patches of summer snow dotted around us become more obvious. I have to remind myself that we’re in Italy, a country perhaps best known for its pizza and pasta offerings and popular structures like the Colosseum and the Leaning Tower of Pisa than for its lava explosions.
The half an hour or so that we’re atop Etna is epic – I don’t use the word often, but on this occasion I think it’s appropriate – and as volcanic steam rises from the Earth in places along our path I don’t shy away from joining the rest of my group in squatting to warm my cold hands in front of the many scattered natural fire pits. I’m keen to go back during winter to see the skiers glide down the mountain as if it’s a slope, but for now, it’s time to discover more of the region she towers over.
Sicily is the largest of the islands in Italy, covering 25,000 square kilometres, and known as the country’s boot. Flydubai added a direct route here in the summer, giving UAE residents another doable destination from the emirate, accessible within six hours from Dubai International.
With Etna and I now acquainted, I’m looking forward to visiting Taormina and Syracuse, two of the notable parts of this rugged and attractive island that has a long history of foreign domination, from the Greeks and the Romans, to the Arabs who ruled for almost three centuries. It was during this period, between 820 and 1061 BC, that the Arabs cemented a layer of inherited customs and attributes still seen today, from the way Sicilians fish through to the introduction of arancini (stuffed rice balls), which have become one of the region’s famous culinary exports. The Arabs were also great builders and town planners and most of the region’s main towns underwent significant change during their rule.
We’re staying in Giardini Naxos, a small resort town in Messina between Cape Taormina and Cape Shiso and a 50-minute drive from Catania Airport. Giardini Naxos is centred on a stretch of hotels (we’re at the Hilton), pizzerias and souvenir shops and is a 20-minute car ride from Taormina, which is worth a visit for many reasons. Besides its stunning elevated position between Mount Etna and the Mediterranean sea, this village of 11,000 or so people is as quaint as the guidebooks suggest.
Strolling through this township that played host to US President Donald Trump and other world leaders at the G7 Summit in May last year, is like taking a walk through Sicilian history. At the very least I’ve been told not to leave without seeing Teatro Greco (the ancient theatre), and seeking out a granita at a place called Bambar. We start our visit at the north entrance, at Porta Messina where it’s through a medieval gate on to Corso Umberto I, the main thoroughfare that is lined with fashion boutiques, restaurants and bars. I get as far as the Piazza IX Aprile not too far along before I’m drawn toward the vista that opens up in front of me, and like everyone else, it’s out with the camera. This spot reminds me of similar viewing platforms in places like Capri and Sorrento, and before I know it, half an hour has passed. I’ve only got limited time to get to the most important attraction here, so as the rain starts to fall, I pick up the pace, not forgetting to take the time to admire the beautiful baroque architecture that surrounds me.
I arrive at Teatro Greco with just enough time to scale the stairs to the top, where I take in the incredible views of the Calabrian coast, the Ionian coast, and the tip of Mount Etna. As I walk around and up and down this ancient structure built in the 3rd century BC and the host of many gladiatorial battles during Roman times, it’s easy to imagine how spine-tingling a modern-day concert experience must be, but that too will have to wait until my next visit.
Bambar is as good as expected, the service terrible enough to indicate the owners know that their famed dessert bar is all about its flavour-filled delights, not how quickly the orders are taken or delivered.
Syracuse is the final stop on what has become quite the three-dimensional Sicilian jaunt, and I can’t help wondering what, if Mount Etna is the region’s temperamental Italian nonna and Taormina her charming next-door neighbour, I will find in this city renowned for its timeless beauty. I’m given plenty of time to ponder this as we undertake the 120-kilometre journey to the southern part of the coast. On the way, we’re told that Syracuse is divided into two, the urban part and Ortigia (or the Citta Vecchia), an island and the city’s centre. It was founded by the Corinthians in the 7th century BC and in the two centuries that followed, was expanded under Dionysius the Elder, who made Syracuse the most powerful of the western Greek colonies.
There is plenty to see (and of course, taste) here, and as our transport pulls up not too far from the city’s showpiece square, Piazza del Duomo, it feels like we’ve made our way on to a film set. The so-called “limestone capital of Sicilian Baroque” is as enchanting as it sounds, but as we walk through buildings with weathered stone and pale pink facades, along stone-paved lanes full of cafes and a selection of Sicily’s best traditional restaurants, you could be forgiven for believing you are richer than you are. Besides the fresh fish, pasta dishes and plentiful supply of Italian cherry tomatoes, a visit here is as much of a visual feast as an edible one with architecture spanning different historical periods including the first prehistoric settlements and the remains of ancient Greek Byzantines and Normans.
After a few hours spent admiring the famous Cathedral of Syracuse and the remains of the Temple of Apollo, I’ve got my answer – Syracuse is the sophisticated woman who has seen it all and likes to be the star of the show.